How Bloomberg Does Business
To sum it up: seven months after Wolfson went to work for Mayor Bloomberg’s administration in New York, Wolfson’s former company, Glover Park Group, registered as a lobbyist for Bloomberg’s company in Washington.
And it was Glover Park Group that set up that Coalition for Competition in Media on Bloomberg’s behalf. Operating out of Glover Park Group’s office, the “coalition” had a website registered on a Portuguese island. (Glover Park says the domain was registered that way to protect against spammers.) A diverse group of two dozen organizations, linked only by a shared interest in a democratic media, lent their names to the effort. Bloomberg LP was listed as just one of them, but it was the source of all the funds and its lobbyists did all the organizing and wrote the letters and press releases, which it would then run by coalition members for their input. The antifeminist group Concerned Women for America signed on, for example, as did its political nemesis, the National Organization for Women (NOW). The Sports Fans Coalition also joined up, alongside the Writers Guild of America. Some of the groups were obscure, and some were well-known.
Glover Park Group assigned powerful, politically connected talent to the Bloomberg effort. For example, Christina Reynolds had just left Obama’s White House, where she had been the director of media affairs for a just over a year. She quickly became one of the contacts for the coalition.
The group’s letters, all written by Glover Park Group, were plastered all around Washington. “As a diverse group of 24 public interest groups and private organizations,” the group wrote to President Obama, for example, “we urge your administration to ensure this unprecedented combination receives the scrutiny that it deserves.”
Coalition building is a normal feature of Washington’s influence efforts. Still, Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, says this case stands out. “I would say that it is clever and somewhat deceptive because the assembly of the groups is mainly meant to further Bloomberg’s interest.” Strictly speaking, she points out, it is not a front group, but it is similar. “It is like a front group because the name of the group and the superficial appearance obscure the primary intent, which is to further this company’s corporate interest.”
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In the jockeying over the Comcast-NBC merger, Bloomberg corporate synergy also came into play. On October 19, Bloomberg Businessweek published a well-researched story exposing how Comcast had boosted its donations to politicians as it pushed for the merger. Reviewing Federal Election Commission records, Bloomberg reporters found that Comcast’s political action committee had increased its donations to politicians by more than $400,000, to a staggering $1.1 million.
Comcast’s massive lobbying and PR campaign to push for FCC approval stood in direct tension with Bloomberg LP’s own lobbying and PR campaign around the merger.
Bloomberg’s lobbyists quickly told the coalition members that it intended “to capitalize on the great Business Week/Bloomberg story this morning,” according to an e-mail obtained by The Nation from a member of the coalition. The lobbyists wrote, “We’d like to flag it for reporters with a quick quote and topper.” The coalition’s press statement said of the article, “These donations…are part of a calculated attempt to buy approval for a merger that offers too many dangers for consumers and media organizations.”
There is no evidence that the Bloomberg reporters wrote the story as part of a companywide strategy or were assigned the story because of corporate influence. A Bloomberg spokeswoman says there is an “impenetrable firewall” between editorial decisions and the other parts of the company. Still, it was a captivating confluence of forces: Glover Park Group, paid by Bloomberg LP, and acting with the coalition it had created on Bloomberg’s behalf, was on the warpath to distribute a news story Bloomberg Businessweek had written about the issue that was the most important pending matter in Washington for the Bloomberg brand.
Glover Park Group, for its part, readily concedes that it organized the coalition and that Bloomberg was its paying client but insists that the coalition was not technically a lobbying operation. “Any lobbying work that’s done is registered and fully disclosed,” a spokesman wrote in an e-mail to The Nation. “The Coalition never did any lobbying.” Here is the way to parse that: Senate lobbying definitions make it clear that lobbying includes “any oral or written communication” with White House or Congressional officials. But material “that is distributed and made available to the public” gets an exemption.
In a subsequent statement to The Nation after a request for clarification, a Glover Park spokesman said the coalition letters and other releases “are simply public communications.”
In January the FCC finally ruled on the Comcast-NBC merger. The commissioners approved it, with a few conditions. Most of the public interest groups that battled the deal saw it as a loss. Free Press, a nonprofit group that works to reform the media and that also belonged to Glover Park’s coalition, called the FCC decision a “devastating loss.” NOW tells The Nation, “We do feel disappointed.”
But Bloomberg’s lobbying had paid off. The FCC ruled that Comcast would have to “neighborhood” channels together, in the exact same language Bloomberg and its lobbyists had pushed for. “Whenever Comcast carries news channels near each other, it will have to include all independent news channels in all of these neighborhoods,” the FCC announced. “Bloomberg,” says the Media Access Project’s Schwartzman, a member of Bloomberg’s coalition, “got what it wanted.” Bloomberg LP’s president, Daniel Doctoroff, who had worked as a deputy mayor in Bloomberg’s administration until late 2007, put out a press release in celebration: “The FCC has taken strong action to preserve independent news programming, and protect competitors against discrimination.” “Bloomberg TV a winner in Comcast-NBC deal” was the headline on Politico.
Corie Wright, policy counsel for Free Press, defended Bloomberg and the coalition in an interview with The Nation. “To say that Bloomberg got what it wanted at the expense of the interests of the other groups in the coalition, I don’t think that’s the case.” Still, the fact is that Bloomberg LP, the company that funded the “coalition,” scored in the end, and the other members didn’t.
Michael Bloomberg’s company is now getting into federal policy in an even more powerful way: it has launched an information service about political influence that wealthy DC players must pay for. It is called simply Bloomberg Government, and it caters to lobbyists, government officials and federal contractors. “Finding the right path through Washington’s maze of regulations, legislation and spending trends can boost your business strategy,” according to the website. “Let Bloomberg Government be your guide.” It promises the inside dope for Beltway insiders who depend on it: “We give you the headlines, players, financials, spending and more, defining and clarifying the complex intersection of government and business.”